Category Archives: Homemaking

Switching it out

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Our home is in a constant state of evolution. It’s no great secret that the key to making a house a home is to make it beautiful but inviting, lovely and lived-in. Somewhere between Please Use A Coaster and Of Course You Can Put Your Feet on the Sofa. Striking that balance isn’t always easy.

One thing I can change seasonally to make things feel bright and new and lovely are the surface decorations in my living areas. Changing out the covers on the sofa pillows, getting a different colored throw out of the linen closet, and adding a seasonally appropriate tablecloth are a couple of quick fixes that instantly make the place spiffed up. Well, that and vacuuming. What is it about hoovering the house makes it look instantly polished? You’d think that would make us do it more often.

Anyway. I wanted new pillow covers and of course I’m too cheap to buy them outright. A trip to the fabric store during a particularly coupony sale netted me a piece of tapestry that I’ve been coveting for MONTHS. I bought a yard, and found a remnant in a bin in a light peacock blue microsuede that nicely complimented the first piece I found. Finally, a piece of peacock blue trim that was clearanced out for $0.97 a yard (down from $6!). And all for about $40. Not exactly cheap, but the pillows I love and covet in my favorite boutique-y stores are usually about that much for just the cover, never mind the actual pillow insert, for a 20″ pillow.

To my sewing corner I went. I have a storage ottoman that I keep some of my shears and things in, and in it I found some beautiful complimentary green remnants in there that I had forgotten about. I make a practice of haunting the remnant bin at the fabric store for this very reason. I’ve gotten some beautiful pieces of fabric, and good sized, for 50% off the bolt price this way. By using some of these pieces along with the two I just bought, I had enough fabric recover a seat cushion for one of our occasional chairs and the throw pillows that go in it. Score!

What I didn’t have were zippers. Well, I’d gotten this far, and I was in that zone where nothing was going to stop me but the power going out. I was just going to have to make envelope backed pillows, which to me are easier anyway.

This pillow style is a great project for a start-up sewer. It’s really forgiving, and you don’t have to fuss with making button holes or installing a zipper, both of which can be intimidating and difficult when you’re learning (and I still fight with zipper installation, to be honest with you). And when you’re done you’ll have something lovely to enjoy every day.

Here’s what you’ll need to make your pillows:

  • Your pillow fabric(s)
  • Thread in a matching or complimentary color to your fabric(s)
  • Pillows

Here’s what you do:

Complete step 1 and/or 1A before fabric shopping if you already have the pillows at home, otherwise you can do the math portion of the project at the fabric store after picking out your pillow forms. Taking a tape measure and calculator will be helpful, and the folks at the store are always happy to help out with questions.

1. If your subject pillow has a removable cover on it you’re ahead of the game. Remove the cover, flip it inside out, and measure it top to bottom, and in the case of a non-square/rectangular pillow, from left to right as well. Write down your measurements for reference. My pillow covers are 18″ squares from edge to edge, with a 1/4″ seam allowance, making them about 17 1/2″ across on the inside of the seam placement. I like my pillows to fit tightly inside of the covers so I make them a little smaller than the pillow itself. Keeps them fluffier that way.

1A. If your subject does NOT have a removable cover and you want to make one for it don’t fret. Get out a tape measure or yard stick, grab your pillow, stretch the corners out, and measure from corner to corner along one side. This guy is 18″. Again, I like my pillows to fit snugly in the case so my front piece is going to be cut to exactly 18″.

2. Take that trusty tape measure or yard stick and measure your square on your chosen fabric, checking for pattern placement. Sometimes its worth buying a little more fabric than you need in order to get the right look on your pillow, so take this into consideration before you go to the cutting counter at the fabric store. If you have a smaller print it’s easier to line up your shot, but on a large pattern sometimes it’s not so easy. Another trick is to make a paper template of your square and use that as a guide so you can really see what your pillow is going to look like when it’s completed.

3. Grab your contrasting fabric, if you’re using one, otherwise keep going with your original fabric. To make the envelope back, you want your overlap to be a good 3-4″ in the center of the pillow, to keep it’s belly covered. I take my pillow length, divide by two, and add 4 to get the right amount of overlap. This provides ample room for your seam allowances as well as hemming your raw edges in the middle.

The equation for my pillows is this:
18 / 2 = 9
9 + 4= 13

My envelope flaps need to be 18″ wide and 13″ tall. Measure and cut two (2).

4. If you didn’t use pinking shears zig-zag one long edge of each of your two pillow back pieces to check the fray. On one of the long edges on each of your flap pieces, fold each of the zigged pieces down about a half an inch on the wrong side of the fabric, press and pin in place. Sew down with a 1/4″ seam allowance.

5. Turning the right sides of the fabric together, lay the two envelope pieces over the pillow front and pin in place, being sure to put the bound edges facing the center of your square.

6. Sew around the edges of your square with 1/4″ seam allowances, and again if you didn’t use pinking shears zig-zag around the outside edges of the pillow to keep the fray down. Flip inside out, cram in your pillow, fluff accordingly, and VOILA!

7. Be smug about your crafting abilities and your smart new pillows.

Now, wasn’t that easy? If you shop the sales and remnant bins you can find some gorgeous fabrics for a fraction of the retail price and make pillow covers that look like they cost a fortune. Happy sewing!

A fun little trip

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So, I have this giant glass vase full of wine corks sitting on our little wine fridge. Generally I stack them up and then take them to a little store in town that recycles them through a program somewhere when the vase is full to overflowing. This time, though, I decided to upcycle them into something fun instead of just recycling them at the grocer. Observe this skinny little wall:

Sort of a good for nothing spot that stares right atcha when you sit on the sofa and look toward the kitchen. This wall bugs me anyway because I wish there were a cut out over the sink that looks into that hall, but whatever. If we buy this condo that’s the second thing we’re doing, right after swapping the swing on one of our bathroom doors. But I digress.

{I respectfully request that you do not judge the number of wine corks that are in that basket.} A little hot glue, a yardstick, a pile of corks and a glass of wine in front of Big Bang Theory. I had a fun little trip down memory lane with this project too; there were all sorts of corks from many different wineries – some we drank at dinner parties with friends, some were gifts, some were consumed at special occasions. There are corks from our family’s winery, corks from wineries that friends work/have worked at, and a couple of blanks from who-knows-where {and many of us know that those were some of the best bottles}. It made me smile, and is something with a story on display while displaying our holiday cards in the soon-to-be-arriving holiday season. For now, I pinned anniversary cards up there. See how cute?

Now I just need to find some cute little pushpins instead of the brass tacks that are on there now. But they’ll do for the time being. I have another yardstick, too so I can make a second strip of corks to expand the space and get a full six feet of space for hanging. I love little art projects like this! Satisfies my need to do something creative but doesn’t take hours of work and planning. Bring on the holiday cards!

I Guess it’s Something

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Hi all! I sort of don’t know where to pick up, where we left off. My last few posts haven’t been of the food related nature, not that we haven’t been eating but because we haven’t been eating anything that I felt was worth sharing, you know? I’m trying to fine-tune a new series of shop once, cook ahead, prep while you can sort of posts, but they’re a lot of work and I need to get a few in the bag before I can start sending them to you. Also, I need ideas for these posts, so I know what you all do on a busy weeknight (other than grab some take away box from somewhere): What is your favorite go-to dinner? What do you make when you are fresh out of anything, when you’re depending on your pantry to do the talking? For some it’s spaghetti, others it’s eggs, but I really want to know what you throw together when you want something quick, tasty and satisfying? Doesn’t need to be healthy, either, it just needs to be dinner.

Please, help a food-obsessed sister out. And I promise you, I’ll have some food coming at you soon.

For now, though, I have a homemaker-y bit. We all like to save money, but live a convenient life. A lot of us are also concerned with our effect on the planet juxtaposed against our consumerism and quest for convenience. What I mean is, I love the Swiffer wet pads, especially since we have laminate and tile floors in our house. What I don’t love is that they are full of chemicals and that the pads aren’t exactly Earth-friendly. Nick and I have always been recyclers and composters and try to be more green in our every day lives. But regular old sponge mops do nothing but spread the nastiness around (I promise), and the Swiffer pads aren’t part of my reasonable expectations of myself to watch my carbon footprint. Also, after we found out that the cat is Hyper Allergic to Everything he touches this summer, I’ve further embraced a green-cleaning lifestyle since it’s cheaper than a bi-weekly trip to the vet. Enter this idea.

A trip to my local Dollar Tree netted me a some microfiber cleaning cloths (for the low, low price of $1!), which I brought home and washed. These are just about the perfect size for my dust mop base, so I didn’t trim them. Observe:

You could cut them, though, and stitch up the edges, if you’d like. I mixed up a bottle of green floor cleaner (I’ve provided the recipe below) and got to work.

One thing to keep in mind with the microfiber pads: don’t use fabric softener with them. You want them to be clingy and staticky, that’s what makes them so genius in this application. Buy putting fabric softener on them, you’re adding an unnecessary oily layer to them, which is going to get all over your floors and decrease absorbency. We don’t use fabric softener at all anymore, but if you do, avoid using it with your cleaning cloths, dishtowels and bath towels. You’ll see a noticeable difference in them.

My method here is to sweep and vacuum up the little bits of whathaveyou off the floor, lightly spritz the floor cleaner in a small area, and mop away, repeating the spritzing and mopping throughout the house. The floor cleaner is streak free and smells pretty great, and this bottle lasts a pretty long time. Also, the essential oils I’ve chosen are naturally antibacterial for you germ-phobes out there, and mask the vinegar smell (which doesn’t bother me and fades really fast, but some people don’t want their house smelling like a pickle barrel for even one hot minute). And once your done, you pull the microfiber pad off the mop, drop it in the washer, et voila! you’re done.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup water (I use bottled because we have hard water in our town)
  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1 cup isopropyl alcohol (regular old rubbing alcohol)
  • A couple drops natural dish soap (I use the Safeway Bright Green orange scent, but use your favorite. I’ve heard not-so-green Dawn is a homemaker’s dream)
  • 4-5 drops lavender or tea tree or peppermint essential oil
  • 24 oz. fine-mist spray bottle (my Dollar Tree has these too, or you can get them at the hardware store. Don’t re-use one from an old cleaner, though, you’re aiming for a green cleaner here and leftover chemical residue sorta subverts that whole thang.)

Pour all ingredients into your spray bottle, and shake, shake, shake. Lightly mist your swept floors, and mop ’til your heart’s content and your floors are sparkling.

They Say it’s Your Birthday…

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I had the great pleasure of making dinner for my dear Dad for his birthday this year. I realized the other day that I hadn’t had my mom and dad over together, and for dinner, since we moved. For shame. What better day to have them over than on Dad’s birthday, am I right? (I know some of you are saying Father’s Day but, it being his day and all, he decided he wanted to grill ribs and oysters in his own back yard. I can’t say I blame him, my parents’ back yard looks like it fell right outta Sunset magazine, no fooling). And what a birthday feast I planned for him!

Le Menu

To Start
Fig and Goat Cheese Crostini with Balsamic Syrup
Piquillo Peppers filled with Mozzarella and Basil

For Dinner
Zucchini Galettes with Fresh Ricotta and Lemon
Oven Roasted Salmon on a bed of Spring Greens

For Dessert
Chocolate Cake filled with Strawberries,
Homemade Strawberry Jam and Fresh Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting

Say it with me, YUM. I know, it’s kind of a lot. But Dad and I have many things in common, including the feeling that going out to dinner is overrated a lot of the time, because, well, my mom and I cook like this. I thought about taking him out for dinner but it just means so much more to have someone prepare a really beautiful meal for you. The best part about this is I had the time to do it all. Not that any one part of it (well, except for maybe the cake) was cumbersome or labor intensive, it just takes time that I wouldn’t ordinarily have on a weekday and this year I did. And I’m learning in my old age that the best gift you can give anyone, ever, is the gift of your time.

I’m proud to say that I made my own ricotta for the galettes (and for those of you who know me well, I made my own pie crust too, which I rarely do). Ricotta from the grocery is mealy at best, and tastes like grade school paste at worst (and don’t even get me started on the fat free amalgamations out there, holy crow they are so gross). Unless, of course, you buy one of the artisan containers, and those are so pricey. But if you have ever tasted the fresh ricotta, you know that the silky mouth feel and milkiness are so superior to the grade school paste that you can never go back.

Making your own ricotta is honestly easy as 1-2-3, and you can make it with wonderful, organic local milk and no weird preservatives or stabilizers for a fraction of what the already-made cheese would cost you at upscale grocer in town. A 1 lb. container of the really great, really fresh ricotta at my favorite cheese counter is upward of $6. How much does a half gallon of milk cost? Even the local organic moo? In my store, less than $3.50. Be sure that you are grabbing milk that is NOT ultra pasteurized, you want some of those little bacteria that hang around in regular old milk. It should tell you right on the front of the carton if it’s ultra pasteurized or not.

Fresh Ricotta
Makes about two cups

1/2 gallon of whole milk (Yes, whole, 2% doesn’t have enough fat to get the job done.)
6 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t. sea salt

Heat the milk in a large pot (or in your microwave like I did) until it reaches 180*F. DON’T BOIL IT, we don’t want it scalded. Remove milk from the heat, stir in the acid of your choice plus the salt, and stir gently just once or twice. Let the milk hang out for 5 minutes; you will see the curds separating from the whey immediately (see picture above).

Line a colander with cheese cloth (or in my case, a clean flour sack towel) with a pan underneath to catch the whey. Pour the warm curds into the cloth-lined colander and let the cheese strain, for about an hour for looser cheese or up to two hours if you want one that’s a bit more firm, closer to cream cheese. (If your cheese strained for longer than you wanted it to, stir back in a bit of the whey that you captured in the pan. Or just add some olive oil!).

Use the cheese right away or store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use. Pat yourself on the back for being the ultimate homemaker, making your own cheese and saving yourself $2.50.

Taking it Back: A Pan of Brownies

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Confession: while many things are made from scratch in this house, brownies are generally not one of them. I am a huge fan of boxed mixes that I gussy up to be something entirely unlike your usual brownies. And a plate of really tasty brownies are a quick and easy thing that can be made to take to a barbecue or potluck when you’re headed to one, or when you have folks in for dinner, they make a great dessert when gently warmed and served with a scoop of ice cream***.

One of my mom’s favorite brownie mix tricks is to glug in a good sized wave of chocolate syrup, of the Hershey’s persuasion. A ‘glug’ would equal about 1/4 of a cup, I think. Mom, if you’re reading, does that sound about right? It adds extra richness and gooeyness, and I am a gooey brownie girl, not a cakey brownie girl. Anything I can do to make them chewier I’ll do, including undercooking them just slightly.

You can add chopped nuts, and not just walnuts ~ toasted pecans, peanuts, cashews, go crazy. Sprinkle them on top, or stir them in. Coarsely chop them so they are big chunks, or really mill them down so they aren’t as prominent, your choice. As we’ve talked about before, though, I am not a nut fan in my baked goods and thusly leave them out (unless I’m trying to stay away from them, in which case I’ll add extra and stir them in so I won’t touch them).

With the trendy advent of adding chiles to chocolate in the last few years, I made a pan of brownies over super bowl weekend that was a stunner. I realized that my buffet had nary a sweet bit on it, and when you’re having a chili bar you have to have something to cut all of the savory. They were a huge hit and something I made up on the fly ~ I was praying that they’d taste as good as they did in my head when I was adding in my adjuncts.

I mention below that you can use a gluten-free brownie mix with great success (and they are so, so good as a GF treat). Be sure, though, that you check your syrup and cherries to be sure that they are completely gluten-free and processed in a plant with good practices. I know that my GF friends are rolling their collective eyes at me for such a basic aside, but for those of you preparing these treats for someone with celiac disease, this can be a crucial note.

Cherry Chipotle Brownies
Makes a 13 x 9″ pan*

1 Family Sized brownie mix (denoted on the box, Pillsbury makes a good one but use whichever you’d like, even a gluten-free one)
1 1/4 t. chipotle powder
1/4 c. chocolate syrup (optional)
1 1/2 c. dried cherries (these are my favorite)
1 c. chocolate chips (optional)**

Preheat oven to 325/350*F as denoted on the box (this will depend on the color of your pan, I use my trusty Pyrex so 350*F for me). Prepare your pan with cooking spray or butter as directed on the box.

Stir the chipotle powder into the brownie mix in a large bowl, and proceed with preparation as outlined on the box, adding in the optional chocolate chips, if you’re using them. Fold in the cherries and optional chocolate chips right at the end.

Spread the brownie mix into the prepared pan, and bake for 28-31 minutes as the box designates.

*To make a smaller mix in a 9 x 9″ pan, purchase your favorite brownie mix, adding in 3/4 t. of chipotle powder and 1 cup of dried cherries, proceeding as outlined above with the package directions.

**Instead of stirring in your chocolate chips, you can sprinkle them on the top of your still-hot but fully-baked brownies, return them to the oven for a second, and then spread the melted chocolate chips on the top, making a chocolate glaze.

***About that ice cream! These brownies make a killer sundae when paired with a big scoop of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. You’re welcome!

Taking it Back: Spaghetti Sauce

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For a few posts, we’re going to take it down a notch or two and go back to the basics at the request of one of my readers. Granted my cooking prowess has made me adventurous and has wooed me into making more complex things, but the best homemakers have a handful of their very favorites they can pull out at any time that please a crowd, are down-home tasty and have very little muss or fuss involved. It’s also nice to have a set of standard recipes that you can turn to that are cost-friendly and don’t break the bank. In times like these we can all stand to save a few bucks but also deserve to have a home cooked meal that we can sit down to and be proud of.

Enter the classics ~ well, my classics. In my freezer there are always a couple of things that are my go-to items for dinners: chicken stock, whole chickens, varying types of sausages (both pre-cooked and raw), boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and spaghetti sauce.

Spaghetti sauce, in my family, is the generalized term for what a lot of people call ragu, meat sauce, or ‘gravy’. Gravy is an entirely different thing to some Italian families than it is in the rest of the country; Italian gravy is a tomato based meat sauce, rather than a brown sauce made of pan drippings after roasting meat. I always have at least one container in the freezer, and the ingredients to make it are part of my general pantry so I can whip up a batch in a flash. When I want spaghetti sauce with dinner there’s very little that can be done to sway me. And while it benefits from all day, low and slow cooking, it is just as tasty when it’s simmered for a half an hour and then served.

This sauce is the basis for my lasagna, or is served either tossed with short pasta and ricotta or cottage cheese and baked, spooned atop a mountain of spaghetti, pooled on polenta, and I’ve even used it as a filling for calzones before, mixing in some cubed mozzarella and sauteed spinach before tucking into a pizza dough blanket (and it’s soooo gooood). By having some in the freezer, in the time it takes to boil pasta, defrost the sauce and make a salad, dinner is ready. It’s not just a mid-week must eat staple though; I like to think that my sauce is good enough for company, and none of my dinner guests have ever said otherwise.

Feel free to riff on this sauce and make it your own. If your grandma made hers with finely diced carrots and celery, then by all means add them. Same goes for fresh or canned mushrooms, fresh spices instead of the dried, the world is your oyster with this sauce. And the more you make it, the more it becomes ‘your sauce,’ evolving each time to become your signature dish.

This sauce is mildly spicy because of the hot Italian sausage, but it isn’t kid-unfriendly in the heat department so far as I’ve found. If you’d rather skip the spicy, go ahead and use a full pound of the mild sausage. To keep your calories and fat down, you can sub in turkey Italian sausage and plain ground turkey for the meats (but you’ll also lose some of the richness). Go ahead and add more of the aromatic spices to your liking, and even extra garlic if the mood strikes. And, if you aren’t a household that generally has an open bottle of red wine around, don’t go open one just for this. There are several bulk wine producers that make split bottles (they come in 4-packs) of wine that are readily available at your grocery store. They are nice to have on hand for something like this: use what you need, and freeze the rest in an ice cube tray and save it to toss in marinades and sauces that call for a bit of wine.

One thing you have to do, though, is taste your sauce while it’s cooking. I know that every diet magazine on the planet is shouting at everyone about the number of calories you consume while tasting dinner as you make it, but it’s essential to good cooking to taste as you go. I personally like to taste my sauce by dipping a slice of french bread in it. MMMMmmm…

Spaghetti Sauce
Makes 12-14 cups of sauce

1 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. mild (sweet) Italian Sausage
1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage
1/2 lb. ground beef (whatever fat level you’re comfortable with)
1 large  yellow onion (we’re talking softball sized), diced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
2 T. dried basil
1 T. dried rosemary
1 T. dried oregano
1 California bay leaf
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
Red wine
Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a large stockpot with the olive oil over medium heat. Add the mild sausage, breaking up with a spoon, and cook until brown. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, and  cook off the hot sausage (if using), and then the ground beef, in the same manner. Avoid putting them all in the pot at once and crowding it, as it will steam your meat bits instead of browning them.

Remove excess grease from pan if necessary, leaving behind a tablespoon or two. Add the meats back to the pan, along with your diced onions and garlic. Sautee the onions and garlic until they are translucent, about 4-5 minutes.

Add in all spices (basil through bay leaf) and stir to marry with the meat and vegetables, then add in your salt, and cans of tomatoes and sauce. Using the 8 oz. sauce can as a measure, fill it with red wine and add it to the pan, along with a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Stir in thoroughly, and taste to adjust seasonings. Lower heat to a simmer, and let it go for at least a half an hour or as long as you can stand it.

Liquid Sunshine

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Before it moved to the new house, I picked all 18 (that’s right, 18!) of the Meyer lemons off of my patio tree and tucked them gently into a bowl in the fridge, with dreams of making something tasty. Meyer lemons are not known for their extended shelf life, and are fairly delicate little fruits, so they were handled with care and reserved for something wonderful.

I’m the sentimental sort with things that I grow – the first of anything inevitably goes bad on the counter or in the fridge while I look for the prefect recipe to showcase this amazing thing that I nurtured into edible loveliness. I really have to quit doing this, what with all of my crowing about growing my own food and not being wasteful. I’m aware of this shortcoming and it’s something I’ll work on this year, starting with the lemons.

I could make lemon bars, lemon loaf, lemon marmalade, lemon curd. And I still might, I juiced every drop out of most of the lemons (there are three still lolling in the vegetable crisper for cocktails to be determined). I wanted something a little more permanent, or at least something that was going to last a little longer than a pan of confections. I also like using all of something when I can, sort of the whole ‘nose to tail’ approach to my food.

Yesterday I whipped out the vegetable peeler and got to work on the lemons, gently peeling the sunny golden peel away from the creamy white pith. My version of nose to tail eating of these precious lemons is going to be limoncello, then candied lemon rinds from the spent peels that made the limoncello, and squeezed the juice from all the lemons and froze it in half cup measures for later batches of baked goods or lemonade. Not bad for a half hour’s work.

The limoncello is already turning the most beautiful shade of marigold, looking like bottled sunshine sitting on the kitchen counter. And this summer, when the mercury hits a hundred degrees (and it will), a bit of this drizzled into a glass of soda water with some ice will make balcony time that much sweeter.

Speaking of sweet, this recipe comes out REALLY sweet. The last time I made it I cut the sugar/water down to 1 1/2 cups of each, and I preferred the less sweet version that was the outcome. Oh, and do what the Italians do: when all is said and done, stick the bottle in the freezer. Ice cold limoncello is the only way to fly!

Limoncello
Recipe from Giada DeLaurentiis

10 lemons (get Meyers if you can)
1 750 ml bottle of vodka (nothing expensive here, folks)
3 1/2 cups of water
2 1/2 cups of sugar

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the peel from the lemons in long strips (reserve the lemons for another use). Using a small sharp knife, trim away the white pith from the lemon peels; discard the pith. Place the lemon peels in a 2-quart pitcher. Pour the vodka over the peels and cover with plastic wrap. Steep the lemon peels in the vodka for 4 days at room temperature.

Stir the water and sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Cool completely. Pour the sugar syrup over the vodka mixture. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Strain the limoncello through a mesh strainer. Discard the peels. Transfer the limoncello to bottles. Seal the bottles and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours and up to 1 month. (Pssst… it’ll keep longer than a month if you can manage not to drink it. Yes that’s a dare!)

My own

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Well, ask and you shall receive is what they tell you. I suddenly find myself with a LOT more time on my hands. Time to finish unpacking, time to get the house organized, time to sew and crochet and get my garden started, as I’ve been dreaming about for months now.

It’s going to give me ample time to study for my bookkeeping class and get my resume reworked because heaven knows I’m going to need it coming up here soon. Finding oneself suddenly unemployed can be a terrifying vision, but I’m choosing to find the silver lining in all of this. I can finally RELAX and not be so goddamn stressed out all of the time. Even Nick told me to defrag for a bit before leaping back in to working. I’m going to make my move back in to employment very thoughtfully, because I find that increasingly I’d like to just be happy at work, doing whatever it is that I choose to do, even if it’s for less money than I was previously making. And what I choose to do could be anything right now. I’m not going to limit myself to anything at this point. Life’s too short.

Defrag I can do, even if it’s just for a bit. I can lay in bed and listen to the rain tippy tapping on the window with a cup of tea, and write to you about my new-found freedom. I can sit in a cafe and people watch while I work on my homework (OK who am I kidding, I won’t work on my homework). I can do yoga for a bit just because the mood strikes me and because, well, whatever else I’m doing can usually wait since I’m on my own time, my own deadline, my own schedule. My. Own. Schedule.

Today the cat and I are making limoncello out of the Meyer lemons from my tree, a pot of soup for dinner, a loaf of focaccia to dip in said soup, a streamlined grocery list, and some cookies for the cookie jar (because I have an empty jar that is just begging for some cookies. And a cookie scoop that was a Christmas gift that needs a maiden voyage). I cut out a pattern for a robe about, oh, six months ago that has been sitting in a pile with the instructions ever since, so I think I’ll work on that. I have some new dress patterns that I bought at a pattern sale to read and outline (and one of my 2012 Bucket List items is to sew a fitted dress and wear it proudly). I might take a short drive to the Salvation Army store  up the road if I need to get out of the house, as it’s my favorite place to poke around and even if I find a treasure that I can’t live without, it will only set me back a couple of bucks. I justify this trip because I have some things to donate anyway, and there’s no harm in stopping in for a while. I’ll only take my driver’s license and $5 so I can’t spend any more than that.

But about that bread. There’s something about warm soft focaccia, dipped in good olive oil or a bowl of soup, that makes my heart sing. Fresh bread, almost any kind, is one of my favorite things, and this week it’s all about me, Summer of George style.

Focaccia
From Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home

1 package of quick rise yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water (110*F)
2 tablespoons of olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 teaspoons table salt
3-3 1/2 cups of unbleached bread flour (or regular old flour, which is what I used and it worked out just fine)
Coarse salt for sprinkling

In a large bowl of the bowl of a stand mixer, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Stir in the oil and the salt. Slowly stir in 3 cups of flour to make a soft dough.

Knead by hand or with a stand mixer, adding flour as necessary. Knead by hand until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, or knead by stand mixer with dough hook on low speed until the dough is no longer sticky and pulls cleanly from the bowl sides, 6-7 minutes. Form the dough into a ball and place in a clean, oiled bowl, turning to coat all sides (I cheated and used the same mixer bowl – no one was looking). Cover the bowl with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, 45-60 minutes.

Oil and 11×17 inch heavy baking sheet. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead slightly. Place on prepared baking sheet and let rest for 5 minutes. Using your fingers, stretch out the dough so that it evenly covers the pan bottom. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise until puffy, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400*F. Using your fingertips, make a pattern of dimples at 2 inch intervals over the entire surface of the dough. Brush the surface with oil and lightly sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake until golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Serve warm.

Good Things Come

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Well, hi there.

We moved.

We moved in a flash and a frenzy, out of our bungalow in Downtown Mayberry to the main street of a country town a stone’s throw away.

We’ve been looking to move for some time, as you know, and the journey has been arduous. While we loved our house, with the shady patio in summer and the brick fireplace in winter, it wasn’t ideal. It was old, it needed love, and as renters we didn’t have the money or permission to give it the oomph that it needed. The search was on, and it went on, and on, and on. And then finally, oh finally, we found Our New Home. Sadly, but happily, we said farewell to our little house.

Ted made the move with us. There were long-stretching prayers circles that he’d be able to come; who knew a furry gray street urchin of a cat required so much prequalification. I thought I was going to have to get references for him. He’s transitioning to indoor life well, though I’ll admit he’s a little bored every now and again, and it manifests itself in his perfection of power-sliding around the house on the hardwood floors at 3:00 in the morning. We’re working on his nap schedule.

We have a little bitty balcony, and no yard, which makes my dream of a garden difficult. But I can grow lettuce and herbs, and there’s room for the lemon tree, a couple of chairs, and the barbecue. And the view. We have the greatest view of the mountains to gaze at.

And so, we’ve been unpacking and arranging and making lists of things we need, and things we want that we will save up to get (new couches!). I’m excited to have more room, a walk in closet, two bathrooms, and THIS BEAUTY to cook in.

 

Gas range, dishwasher, and this isn’t even the whole thing. It wraps around the other side of the fridge over there. It’s unbelievably lovely. And it’s right here in our new house.

So, the adventures continue, in an upstairs condo in downtown wine country. Good things come to those who wait.

Cheese plate looming in the distance

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This time of year can be a little daunting on the Eating Healthily front. A two pound box of See’s delivered to the office here (‘Merry Christmas’ indeed), a plate of cookies from the neighbors there, a holiday party or three on one bustling Saturday. It’s tough to behave all the time, and I know we’re all trying to do our best without feeling like we can’t eat anything.

One thing that we do around our house is make an extra concerted effort to eat better on the days we can control it. Not to say we can’t control what we eat every day (even when faced with three holiday parties full of good eats), but I’m going to be honest with you here: I’m not one of those people who believes in outright deprivation or strictness. If I want a piece of candy, I eat a piece of candy. Cheese plate looming in the distance? I’ll have a bite or two of my favorite. Cookie buffet in the corner? I’ll choose two that sound awesome or are something I don’t make, and stick to those. Being mindful that the first bite or two is enough, and reminding myself that a second helping will never taste as good as the first, are what I use as my aids.

What was I talking about? Eating mindfully, right. (My brain started to segue into cookies, sorry.)  So, when the husband and I are staring down the barrel of a smorgasbord of parties or an upcoming family ravioli feed, I adjust our portion sizes and dinners accordingly around those days. I say dinner because I have no control (and no desire to control) what Nick eats during the day.

I stick to the basics of lean protein, tons and tons of veggies, and maybe a little starch or carby goodness. And since it’s a weeknight, it has to be pretty quick too because I’m not getting everything in the house dirty to lay out 3 courses, you get me? And necessity is the mother of invention as we all know, so most of the time I’m making it up as I go along.

One thing that you can add almost completely guilt-free is extra seasonings. More herbs, more spice, more flavor. It takes an otherwise boring entree and makes it more tasty, and is a simple way to feel indulgent on a Monday night. One way I like to accomplish this is to make a pot of infused olive oil. Our choice fat for everyday cooking, olive oil is one of the healthiest cooking staples we use.

The fancy pants infused stuff in your standard Overpriced Gourmet Grocer can cost you upward of $8 for a 6 ounce bottle (trust me, I’ve looked). And while it’s cutesy and makes a nice quick hostess gift in a hurry, I don’t buy stuff like this to have at home when I have all of the stuff to make it at home. I know, I’m so cheap, but I just can’t.

Infused oils perk everything up. A tiny bit on a salad tossed with some balsamic and it’s instant dressing. A little bit heated in a pan takes a boring boneless chicken breast to a pan-seared golden wonder. Used in conjunction with a bag of spinach and a quick saute it makes wonderful wilted greens for an amazing side dish (crack a couple eggs in there and dinner is done in one pan, more on that later). It takes  a couple of minutes and a couple of ingredients to make something that will literally jazz up anything you dare to drizzle it on. And back to that hostess gift: poured into a clean bottle or jar with a lid, and presented with piece of ribbon and a sweet homemade tag it’s a welcome gift, even for those that don’t cook (labeled as Bread Dipping Oil for those folks).

Infused Olive Oil

2 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled (no need to chop)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 c. olive oil
4 whole black peppercorns

In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients and place over medium-high heat until the herbs and garlic are sizzling. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10ish minutes. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature. Remove herb sprigs and garlic cloves and pour into a container with a lid. I’ve been told you should store this in the fridge but I personally never have. It doesn’t stick around long enough to ‘go bad’. Do as you wish. And get crazy with this idea, too: add citrus peels during the infusing process, more garlic, swap for shallots, different herbs. It’s your creation, have some fun with it.